A Kaleidoscope of Opportunity: Teaching life skills

by Mary Ellen Waltemire

Camp professionals know that camp provides the opportunity to teach life-long skills, such as creative thinking, decision making, and getting along with others. By developing goals for your program and anticipated outcomes for your campers, you can ensure that your camp program will give kids a world of good.

The seven life skills that follow have been identified by the 4-H program as being essential for productive and happy lives. Consider how these life skills might have a place in your camp program.

Creative Thinking

Many children today are not challenged to look at things differently, to find the second right answer. By teaching creative thinking you challenge campers to think in alternative ways through speculating, imagining, visualizing, investigating, and synthesizing untried directions.

Creative thinking is often the most fun skill to program for with both teens and youth because the opportunities are unlimited. Staff can easily work with youth to develop creative thinking skills through arts and craft classes, drama workshops, and other small and large group activities. Perhaps the best way to encourage creative thinking is to engage young people in team-building and initiative programs. Campers' creative juices really start to flow when faced with a challenge of limited resources and having to cross an imaginary quicksand pit with alligators on either side.

During staff training, prepare teen leaders for their leadership role at camp by discussing possible scenarios. For example, it's the third rainy day in a row, and campers are getting restless. Challenge the teens to create activities that involve campers in an exciting experience. Consider other exercises that require counselors to think outside the box and get creative juices flowing, such as asking them to bring new and creative program ideas to each training session. Another exercise involves giving teen leaders a sheet of thirty or so circles and asking them to come up with ideas that use all thirty circles.

Decision Making

As a youth development specialist, you realize the importance of helping young people learn and put into practice sound decision-making skills. The reaction you get when you take a group of campers through the formal decision-making process and relate it to the choices they have at camp is interesting. At camp, the choices and decisions campers make are endless - from selecting beds in the cabin to which activities to take to what to eat at meal time. With the help of caring teen and adult staff, your campers not only learn and practice the decision-making process but also learn to ac-cept responsibility for their decisions. For some youth this last aspect, accepting responsibility, is the hardest part of the process. They come to recognize quickly how their personal values influence their decisions and those of others.

Teen leaders can play an important role in the development of this skill by helping campers identify all the available options throughout the program and then systematically working through the benefits of each in a cabin setting. Teens can gain volumes of experience themselves by helping and guiding campers through decisions to be made during their time at camp.

Acquiring Knowledge

The ability to gain knowledge and skills and apply them to new situations is an important step toward self-directed living. As youth build upon and extend their knowledge and skills, they develop a commitment to life-long learning. In a camp situation, it is imperative to give campers the opportunity to learn new skills, practice those skills, and process the information for both immediate and future use.  Many camp classes provide an opportunity for learning new information than can be used in a variety of ways. Some camp classes provide an awareness of new subject matter, while other classes that youth participate in offer the opportunity to gain some in-depth knowledge in a particular area. Flexibility and variety in camp programs and opportunity for campers to experience something they would not in the home environment are indications of a camp's commitment to youth development.

For teens working in leadership roles in camp, the skill of acquiring knowledge not only applies to learning leadership skills but also to learning other skills that are offered in the subject matter sessions that are planned for and offered to them. Classes that are designed for specific age groups can be more effective and easier to conduct than those that include a variety of ages.  Specialized instruction tailored to specific age groups makes camp easier to manage and heightens the interest of the campers involved. Teens serving in leadership roles can learn much through co-teaching classes and working with young campers who are learning new skills.

Responsibility

Responsibility means accepting a task, consistently working toward completing the task, being reliable in meeting obligations associated with the task, and being accountable for the results. There's no better instance to teach this skill than in a group living situation with other campers.

For some, the thought of accepting a role in cabin clean-up is a truly new experience. Yet when campers are involved in the decision of who does what and can easily see how everyone has a role to play in making the cabin community work, it's great for them to realize that together everyone really does achieve more.

Teens working as part of the leadership staff also learn and practice this skill throughout each day. One of the important aspects of working with teens in learning this skill is to have them understand what is expected, provide the training they need to accept a particular role at camp, and then support them through the process. A most effective tool to help teens know what is expected is a detailed job description that outlines the qualifications for the job, specific duties, and the reporting chain.

Provide extensive training for each position and then identify adult mentors to help teens as they work to accomplish their jobs. As a follow-up, complete an evaluation for each teen including written suggestions of ways he can improve his skills as he considers returning to camp for another summer. Responsibility is one of the most important life skills and can be encouraged and fostered in many ways through effective training and caring support.

Communication

Communication is vital! By helping campers develop an understanding of the communication process, you can help them prepare for the future. This process involves listening, observing, and sharing information, feelings, talents, and skills with others through interactive verbal and nonverbal processes. As you know, effective communication is imperative in a camp situation and clear communication affects everything we do in life.

Campers need to know when and where activities are taking place and what they are expected to do. Developing their communication skills is important since the way they perceive and understand camp experiences is key to the success of the camp and campers' future participation. One activity that reinforces the need for good listening and verbal skills is the telephone activity, where one person starts a message and then repeats it to a second person and so one until the message comes back to the original sender. What a transformation that message takes!

With teen leaders, developing and practicing good communication skills is crucial to their success as leaders. Much time can be spent in helping them practice these skills, yet the true test of their learning is when they practice those skills with young campers and in small group activities.

Understanding of Self

Understanding self is basic to developing a positive self-concept. Youth develop confidence and self-respect by confirming their identity as unique, capable, significant, and influential people. From the welcoming activity to the ending celebrations of a great session together, you have many opportunities to help campers gain a better perspective of who they are.

Camp staff play a vital role in helping youth accept themselves and their unique talents and abilities. Creative activities, self-expressions of song and dance, and other experiential activities can foster a pride in one's self. When a camper feels challenged by a situation, others should chime in and give encouragement and support.

Teens learn to understand themselves through examining their relationship to the entire camp community. Helping teens understand their individual strengths and abilities is key during the training process, and encouraging them to use those skills through the camp program is essential as well. Many teens enjoy the opportunity to teach classes, conduct recreation activities, and facilitate camp experiences. Equip them with the tools to succeed and you help teens value their significance, which in turn helps you have a great camp program.

Getting Along with Others

Building cooperative, interdependent relationships with others is a skill young people need to develop and continue throughout life. For some campers, getting along with others can be a real challenge. Helping each camper understand his individual role as it affects the whole is important. Whether in the group living situation, on a three-mile hike, or through camp clean-up, campers can assume a role, work with others to get the task done, be recognized for a job well done, and move to the next activity.

Getting along with others is key to any successful camp program. Through camp staff training, you can help your teen leaders learn to respect each other as individuals, which in turn helps them help their campers practice the same acceptance. One activity that teaches acceptance is to role play a situation where some teens have certain disabilities. By walking in the shoes of someone who has a disability, they can understand first hand what it's like to be different and how people sometimes react to differences in negative ways. Follow this with a discussion of ways to work with all types of individuals.

Camp provides so many opportunities for positive youth development for both campers and teens who provide leadership at camps. It is an environment where, by designing and deliberately facilitating experiences that teach and help young people practice life skills, you truly are giving kids a world of good.

Originally published in the 1999 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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